What is Environmental Law?

Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Environmental law is a complex area of law that goes far deeper than the protection of the environment. Those who practice environmental law must master more than the relevant legal doctrines, federal and state statutes, regulations, and administrative law principles. They must also be able to analyze public policy, understand economics, science, and the basis behind environmental protection. They must also sift through the bureaucratic and political aspects of environmental law and policy while attempting to litigate for their clients. A successful environmental lawyer can solve environmental problems and see the wider social, economic, and political implications that underlie the environmental law.

A forest ecosystem.
A forest ecosystem.

There are several areas that environmental law can cover, most which fall under the catch-all category of environmental degradation. Air pollution, water pollution, and the regulation of hazardous wastes are just a few of the issues that can be addressed through environmental law. In addition, protection of the ecosystems and natural resources are also frequent issues for those practicing environmental law. Consequently, cleaning up and preserving the air, water, and land are important goals of environmental law – although sometimes economics plays a role, as well.

Emissions from factories can be a serious environmental problem.
Emissions from factories can be a serious environmental problem.

The issues are most often regulated by a series of enactments, the most far-reaching being the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The purpose behind NEPA is to compel government agencies to analyze how their decisions affect the environment. There are also numerous federal statutes that regulate and force compliance a variety of topics. For example, in the United States Code, there are complete chapters that deal with issues such as Insecticides and Environmental Pesticide Control, Conservation, Endangered Species, the Clean Water Act, Atomic Energy, Noise Pollution, and the Clean Air Act. There are countless cases before the Supreme Court, lower courts, and state courts that provide precedence for future cases, as well.

An environmental lawyer may sue a company for polluting the water.
An environmental lawyer may sue a company for polluting the water.

Someone interested in a career in environmental law can take several paths. She can work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and work closely with state and local agencies and handle matters that fall under any one of the countless federal statutes or enactments. She can also work for a state or local agency, providing counsel for environmental related issues. There are also opportunities to work for large businesses, such as oil and gas companies, providing legal advice and making sure the company understands the legal ramifications of polluting the environment and dismissing environmental laws. In the alternative, she can choose to work for an environmental protection group, such as the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, or Greenpeace.

The use of insecticides and fungicides is regulated by a variety of environmental and agricultural laws.
The use of insecticides and fungicides is regulated by a variety of environmental and agricultural laws.
Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Dee is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a B.A. in English Literature, as well as a law degree. Dee is especially interested in topics relating to medicine, legal issues, and home improvement, which are her specialty when contributing to wiseGEEK.

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Discussion Comments


I worked as a clerk in an environmental law firm. You might imagine a small office with lots of posters on the walls and a bunch of ex-hippies working as lawyers but it was actually the opposite of this.

Our firm specialized in helping businesses, particularly large corporations, navigate environmental laws. In most cases we would argue against the strength and jurisdiction of the laws according to interpretations that were favorable for business.

Here is the real kicker, we were good at it. We regularly found exemptions, loopholes and legal disregards of even some of the strictest environmental laws. I can't say that I feel great about the work I did in those years. I am not an environmental nut but you don't want to feel like you're making the world worse.


@MrMoody - Personally, I don’t have a dog in this race either way, but I do like to know from time to time what the latest news is for environmental regulations, if only so I can understand what politicians are talking about.

I’ve found blogs online which tell me everything I need to know about environmental law. Many of these blogs are written by lawyers, but since they are blogs, they are written in easy to understand language so that even I can understand them.


@hamje32 - If you want to stay ahead of the curve, as you suggested, then you probably should read environmental law articles and books to find out about current legislation and how it will impact industry.

I work in the utility industry and we are made very aware of the current carbon emissions regulations and how they impact our work. I do agree that both sides should work together, but unfortunately some companies see the amount of regulations imposed by the EPA as being excessive and onerous. This is where we need compromise I believe.

Perhaps some regulations could be scaled back in return for demonstrated leadership on the part of the utility companies to curtail their carbon emissions, in their own way.

I believe businesses will find the most cost effective and efficient way to streamline their operations so that carbon emissions can be reduced. That’s my opinion anyway.


Environmental law is a lot more complicated than it seems because there is a lot of grey area in managing the environment. There are many conflicting concerns and not often one clear choice, even when your goal is to support the environment as much as possible.

I took a class in environmental law in college and one example that was given always stuck with me.

We know that reliance on coal and oil for the production of energy is destructive and unsustainable. Hydro electric is one form of sustainable energy that produces a lot of power in a relatively stable supply for a low cost. It is not perfect as a renewable but it is a solid alternative.

But the environmental consequences of damming up large bodies of water are huge. Lots of land is lost, species are displaced, aquatic populations suffer tremendously and there are serious and lasting effects on the water supply elsewhere.

So what is the better option, destroying the land to get clean energy or continue using a dirty source until a better alternative can be found? What if it comes too late and the destruction is even greater?


More companies are becoming environmentally conscious, which I believe is a good thing. I think that if corporations can act on their own to ensure that they conduct their business operations in a way that is truly “green,” then there will be less need for litigation.

At the company where I used to work, we had a green initiative and a team of environmental lawyers that acted as consultants. These lawyers weren’t bad guys out to tell us what we were doing wrong, but good guys trying to ensure that we stay aware of environmental laws and act in accordance with the laws.

Frankly, I think this is the way we have to do things. Environmentalists and corporations need to get together to achieve common objectives, rather than seeing each other as enemies.

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